Foregoing a heavier all-wheel drive transmission, the SEAT Leon Cupra 290 offers more power than before while sticking with its front-wheel drive layout. It benefits from a trick electronic front differential that makes it a rapid point-to-point car. Combining this with SEAT's more affordable price tag this makes many other rivals look overpriced.
In the metal
The SEAT Leon has been around in its current guise since late 2012 yet it shows little sign of ageing. Sharp creases along its flanks and those distinctive LED daytime running lights give the car a look that remains desirable today. However, it is a little disappointing that, in this new range-topping performance model, SEAT has done little extra to make it stand out more than the Cupra 280 it replaces. A small Cupra 290 badge can be spotted on the back, but that's all that identifies it as being that little be more special. Of course, there is a counter argument that by not highlighting its extra performance, this SEAT gets an extra dose of wolf-in-sheep's clothing appeal. You can choose from the five-door or ST estate body styles.
There is some scope to further customise the interior, although it isn't too bad to begin with. The 6.5-inch colour touchscreen now includes MirrorLink, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, so connecting your smartphone won't be a problem. There's also a flat-bottomed steering wheel and clear easy-to-read instrument dials. Ergonomically, the driving position is good, while slim A-pillars and side mirrors that are located on the side of the doors combine to give a good field of vision, especially when pulling out of junctions.
If you're expecting a noticeably different car from the Leon Cupra 280 it replaces you will be slightly disappointed. The additional 10hp added to the Leon Cupra 290 isn't immediately apparent. SEAT has worked on making the engine stronger, with maximum torque of 350Nm now spread further across the rev range, coming in at 1,700rpm and remaining up to 5,800rpm.
Performance advantages have also been achieved by the introduction of a new sports exhausts system that is lighter by 5.8kg and has lower back pressure. The sound is claimed to be better too, though people on the street benefit more from this than the occupants.
As before there is a choice of a six-speed manual or automatic transmissions, the latter being every bit as slick in its operation as found on other Volkswagen Group cars such as the Golf GTI. The 2.0-litre TSI engine likes to rev too. Drive it hard with the manual transmission and you will find yourself having to pull the next gear sooner than you might expect. Without an eye on the rev counter you could easily find yourself running into the limiter in lower gears.
That said, it does transfer power to the road quite well thanks to its mechanical limited slip differential. For a front-wheel drive car it copes well and exhibits little in the way of torque steer away from a standing start. Body roll is kept in check thanks to suspension that sees the car sit 10mm lower than the Leon FR, but stops short of being too stiff for comfortable everyday driving.
Mechanical grip is high; the Cupra 290 wears 19-inch alloys with a 265 cross-section front and rear. Keener drivers can also specify stickier Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 shod lightweight alloy wheels as part of a 'Cupra Sub 8 Performance Pack'. This also features Brembo callipers and larger ventilated discs. During some more spirited driving the car's regular brakes did start to exhibit some fade with heavy use, so it is an upgrade worth considering if you're a 'press-on' sort of driver.
What you get for your money
In the Leon Cupra 290 you get most of the toys from the SEAT chest with the standard spec car, though you will pay extra for satellite navigation and adaptive cruise control. The rest of the cabin isn't all that special and this is perhaps where SEAT is losing out on sales to the likes of the Golf R. Buyers can upgrade the interior trim and add sportier bucket seats, but this drives the price up further and away from the value proposition it was. All said this is still a lot of performance for the money.
Whether you're on a tighter budget or simply want a hot hatch that isn't one of the more obvious choices, the SEAT Leon Cupra 290 won't leave you feeling short-changed. On a fast open road it is capable of keeping up with the best of them despite not having the added advantage of an all-wheel drive transmission. If you want a hot hatch that doesn't cost the Earth this SEAT might be your ideal match.